The Christmas television special is as much a festive tradition as presents and mince pies. In the UK, this especially applies to the comedy series, with almost every sitcom, sketch show, and variety hour screening a Christmas special over the years. Although there is a wealth to choose from, THN has narrowed down its five favourites, a task that was an absolute pleasure to research. And whilst we enjoy these top five, let us spare a thought and say a small Christmas prayer for those who didn’t make the list but remain and integral part of the Christmas special regardless: Alf Garnett, Frank Spencer, Father Ted, Victor Meldrew, Morecombe and Wise, THE FAST SHOW gang, and many others. A merry Christmas to you, one and all…
5. ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES (1996)
There was a time when no Christmas day was complete without a seasonal episode of ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES. The BBC sitcom became part of the traditional British Christmas, and continued churning out the specials years after the final series had aired. Although there are a great number of yuletide classics to choose from – the return of the Trotter’s father in ‘Thicker Than Water’, their disastrous beano to Margate in ‘The Jolly Boys’ Outing’, or Del Boy’s scheme to sell tap water in ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ – the most significant of all is surely the 1996 Christmas trilogy. Originally planned as the final ever episodes, the trilogy – ‘Heroes and Villains’, ‘Modern Men’, and ‘Time On Our Hands’ – is the perfect send off for Del, Rodney and Uncle Albert.
After years of wheeling and dealing, the Trotters finally make their millions from auctioning an antique watch that’s been sitting in the garage for 25 years. The trilogy has hilarious highs (such a Del and Rodney’s dash through London dressed as Batman and Robin) and emotional lows (Cassandra miscarrying her and Rodney’s baby), and sees the Trotter clan literally walk off into the sunset. However, the Christmas trilogy has been unfortunately tarnished. Five years later, the late John Sullivan and the BBC willfully pissed on the legacy of ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES, reviving the show in a cynical ratings bid. Not only were some of the key actors dead by this point, the new episodes meddled with the show’s continuity and stripped the Trotters of their new fortune, therefore undoing all the brilliant work seen in the 1996 trilogy. Therefore, ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES only ranks at number five. Plonkers.
4. THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN (2000)
So many great Christmas stories take their lead from the Dickens classic ‘A Christmas Carol’, and THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN is no exception. After two seasons of anarchic and macabre humour in their fictional town of Royston Vasey, the quartet of writers produced this one-off special, often considered the pinnacle of their achievements together. Fully immersing themselves in the horrific side of their work, the League’s Christmas special revolves around three stories, mimicking Scrooge’s visions of Christmases past, present, and future.
The stories are suitably surreal, told to the reluctant and foul-mouthed Priest by a procession of unwelcome visitors. There’s Charlie, who tells of his nightmare, in which his wife Stella goes to extreme lengths to destroy his dreams of winning a line-dancing contest, only to find her actions come at a deadly price; then there’s Matthew, an ex-choir boy whose 1970s visit to Germany saw him pursued by both the Queen of Duisburg Herr Lipp and his vampire wife Lotti; and finally, Dr Chinnery the vet, who tells a story about a cursed pair of monkey’s testicles.
But just like ‘A Christmas Carol’, THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN special has a redemptive tale at its centre. The Priest has some Christmas demons of own, and as she comes to terms with her own past there’s a fourth and final knock at the Church door. Someone looking for Dave, apparently.
3. KNOWING ME, KNOWING YULE WITH ALAN PARTRIDGE (1995)
This Christmas offering of Alan Partridge’s original chat show KNOWING ME, KNOWING YOU is the TV and radio host’s finest ever hour. Whilst it’s largely agreed that his follow up series, I’M ALAN PARTRIDGE, is a superior show, Coogan has rarely bettered his performance here – arrogant, obnoxious, and on the verge of a massive breakdown. He is also razor sharp. Take his early exchanges with BBC boss Tony Hares (making his TV debut here) and a Christian bell-ringer, in which Alan quickly talks himself out of a second series with his odious and un-censored banter.
There are other highlights, in particular Alan’s guests. There’s Fanny Thomas, the TV chef drag queen, whose sexual innuendos (‘Oops, pardon!’) annoy Alan so much he outs Fanny as failed disc jockey Peter Willis, a move that almost earns Alan a punch on the nose (‘Do you want Fanny or do you want Peter?’); then there’s Father Christmas – better known as the manager of Alan’s local Rover dealership – brought in for some shameless product placement; there’s also Gordon Herring, the wheelchair-bound golfer whose presence robbed a West End theatre of its disabled access ramps (‘If you want to see the Buddy Holly Story, you can forget it!’); and of course, Mick Hucknall singing ‘Ding Dong Merrily On High’.
2. BLACKADDER’S CHRISTMAS CAROL (1988)
As BLACKADDER’s various series moved through history, it was inevitable the devious character would cross Dickens’ path at some point. Just as THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN had done years later, Ben Elton and Richard Curtis put their own dastardly spin on ‘A Christmas Carol’. Taking the place of Scrooge, Ebeneezer Blackadder learns a valuable lesson about the nature of Christmas, albeit this time in an alternative way. Whilst Scrooge began the story as a miserly swine, Blackadder is a philanthropist and shares everything that he and Baldrick have, even if it means no presents and nuts of their own at Christmas. Poor Blackadder even forfeits his turkey to Mrs Schrachit for her son Tiny Tom, even though he is sure to turn into a pie shop if he eats any more heartily.
But much like the original story, a yuletide ghost visits, showing Blackadder snippets of his ancestors at Christmas, and even visions of future descendents. Blackadder soon realises that his charitable ways will get him nowhere, and if he wants his presents, nuts, and turkey back he’ll have to start looking out for numero uno, even if it means leaving Queen Victoria and her naughty little sausage Prince Albert out in the cold…
1. THE OFFICE (2003)
Here’s a bold statement, and one by which THN will stand to the very end: not only is THE OFFICE the best TV Christmas special of all time, it’s the finest 90 minutes of British comedy ever.
Whilst the mockumentary format had been used before (OPERATION GOOD GUYS and TRAILER PARK BOYS, for instance), Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant made it their own. By showing the mundane side of life in THE OFFICE and the all-too-familiar dynamics between their characters, audiences were able to connect on an emotional depth that was rare in comedy until this point. Though the first two series speak for themselves, it wasn’t until the screening of the Christmas special that this connection became apparent.
David Brent, former boss-from-hell, is now alone, made redundant and detached from Wernham-Hogg and the colleagues he once managed. During one of his many visits to replacement boss Gareth, Brent is challenged to find a date for the upcoming Christmas party, and so begins a painful series of blind dates. It’s at this point that Brent’s true vulnerability shines through; sure, he’s inappropriate and desperate for acceptance, but underneath is an insecure and lonely man. The series’ finest moment may come as his last date asks him to call her again, which is as emotionally satisfying as anything seen on TV.
That brings us, of course, to Tim and Dawn, who’s on-off flirting served as the backbone of series. With Dawn coming back to Slough from her extended holiday in Florida, the big question is whether she will leave idiot boyfriend Lee and finally hook up with Tim. Gervais and Merchant throw enough curve-balls to prove they write endings better than anyone (further demonstrated by EXTRAS and CEMETERY JUNCTION), and the closing moments pull at the heartstrings and open the tear-ducts just as they did eight years ago. Not only is THE OFFICE one the funniest and most seminal comedies ever, it’s also the most touching.
To quote Taffy from the warehouse, ‘Merry fucking Christmas’.